Thursday, April 14, 2011

First 1000 words of paper draft:

All the Noise, Noise, Noise: Aural Disruption of the Public Sphere

            It may seem strange to begin an academic paper with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but I want to argue that this film gives us a way to think about the permeable boundary among noise, information, and music--particularly as this play out within the public sphere. As Mark C. Taylor writes, following Michel Serres, “If information sometimes can be noisy and noise informative, the logic of le parasite  (i.e. interference) might help to clarify the fluid dynamics of information” (Taylor 101). Taylor continues to claim that “for those with more open minds [. . .] noise is a welcome guest whose interruptions and disruptions are as creative as they are destructive” (Taylor 103).
            The Grinch sits atop his mountain, hating the Whos, and negatively daydreaming about the Christmas that will soon arrive. The worst part of Christmas, according to the Grinch, is the noise. While the Grinch recounts all of the manifestations of the noise, the film cuts to the Whos enjoying making their noise. At the risk of over-theorizing, the participation in noise for the Whos does not communicate anything per se, but seems to be an act of pure jouissance. Rather than each individual child receiving gifts and selfishly enjoying it (our culture) the Whos’ instruments require collective participation. The instruments are not merely to make music, but involve several bodies and are frequently mobile. The Grinch particularly hates the “electro whocarnio fnooks”—a vehicle without a tenor, a noise without a meaning, movement without a destination or direction--pure collective enjoyment.
            Seuss’s non-sense language only reinforces a focus on aural affect rather than the instruments as a carrier of meaning or melody. The ‘instruments’ surpass Joycean punning to nonsense that seems to communicate communication itself.  As Jean-Luc Nancy argues, “Communication is not transmission, but a sharing that becomes subject: sharing as subject of all ‘subjects’. An unfolding, a dance, a resonance. Sound in general is first of all communication in this sense. At first it communicates nothing—except itself” (Nancy 41). This is the communication that D. Diane Davis points to in Levinas: the saying rather than the said (Davis 194).  The saying in the film seems to be, to use Davis’ terms, the address is “both the exposedness of the other and the obligation to respond” (194). The Whos sing:

“Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays
Welcome Christmas, bring your light
Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays
Welcome in the cold of night

These nonsense words, indicating the ‘saying’ rather than the said seems to be an openness to radical alterity, but this refrain is ‘colonized’ or, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, ‘territorialized’ with meaning by the narrator’s re-writing of the words into a coherent meaning at the end of the film. The words are no longer a pure saying of nonsense (noise)—a calling for the other’s response—we see that the Whos have a particular conditions that need to be met for Christmas to be welcome: “as long as we have we,” “as long as we have hands to grasp,” “heart to heart and hand in hand.” The Whos may not need presents and complex instruments to participate in song and community, but that is because they have “we,” they have a sort of homogenous communal solidarity based on sameness. Even the name the “Whos” indicate a kind of non-specific, universal people.
            Indeed, the Whos cannot handle the radical other within their mists because the Grinch as Grinch cannot be accepted because he does not participate in the ritual of Christmas. On one hand, if we figure the ‘whos’ as the utopian other (the other we would like to be) as we identify with the Grinch, that other invites us to respond, but this is not by interrupting our desire for meaning. True, the Grinch could be said to ‘learn’ something by the trauma of his heart growing several sizes in a day—“a trauma, a shattering of the self and world” (Davis 199). However, we as viewers, familiar with the the joy of Christmas, read the Grinch as an outsider. Notice, only when his heart grows two sizes and he becomes essentially another non-descript Who is he truly welcomed into the community. The Whos are settled in the values of the community such that its disruption is impossible. In this sense, it is an extreme version of Habermas’ ideal public sphere, where neither reason nor the taking away of material goods can disrupt Tradition. In Whoville, democratic process is impossible and, to me, seems to be a self-enclosed community that has little meaning for us in our world driven by networks and complex power relations.
            Now, one could level this charge at pretty much any children’s film—particularly one made in the 60s (a hopeful time for utopia) and my analysis of noise, the public, and communication will not stop with an overblown reading of the Whos. However, I do believe that the film leads into more serious considerations. The community of the Whos, as an egalitarian society, can afford to live in Christmas jouissance everyone accepts the noise as signifying communal feeling. This interchange between noise and information is something theoretically explored by Taylor through Serres: “But noise is parasitical and thus is never pure. There can no more be noise apart from the signal with which it interferes than there can be signal apart from the noise it excludes” (Taylor 110). But what happens to this theory when we explore instances of noise in relation to the tensions between the public and private sphere? Christmas time in Whoville consists of an entire community coming together and participating in the noise, but we know that this communal participation is always in tension with private existence.  In order to investigate this tension, I will now look at Henry Bean’s 2007 film, Noise.

(see next post!)


  1. I wonder about Beowulf and the ways in which the noise of the Mead hall pissed off Grendel (Jesus...I hope that's the actual story and not the recent film version).

    In both Grinch and Beowulf, the noise is celebration of conquest that inspires backlash which eventually leads to conquest.

    I know you're planning to eventually connect this to Do the Right Thing, which is good. See also: Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" and the homophonic opening line: "Bass[Base]! How low can you go." That the fundamental underpinnings of disruptive force is SOUND.

    Oddly, I might also consider Phil Specter and his Wall of Sound, if you're looking for other potentially connected avenues.

  2. Also...apologies for the "Mr. Hamilton" handle...this is from my old blogger account that I used with high school students.

  3. I'm fascinated, thanks! I look forward to reading more.

  4. And thanks also for your reading and comment on the Duffy post. I love this idea of the 'embodied experience of reading a poem'. That's an excellent way to put it. I do it on the basis of my limitations. I am not trained in interpreting literary or poetic texts. I am developing an interest in it, but I would like to do so in a Deleuzean way. I find Duffy's works to be very helpful in finding concrete ways to see Deleuze's ideas on language at work in the production of sense and affect in a text. So perhaps you teach literature or literary criticism? I am eager to learn more about these things.

    I also benefit a lot from your ideas here on noise in language. Just keep us posted on when and where the rest will be available!

    All the best,